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Man and Superman: Kinesiologist discovers physiological secrets behind Lance Armstrong's cycling success

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University of Texas at Austin College of Education Professor Ed Coyle started a seven-year study in 1992 of cycling phenom Lance Armstrong and learned what makes a superman. As it turns out, it wasn’t drugs or any other artificial enhancement—it was just a simple matter of determination, natural-born physical gifts and a training ethic that 99 percent of us don’t come anywhere close to having.

From the time when Armstrong was 21, and through a bout of cancer and Armstrong’s first Tour de France Grand Champion victory, Coyle watched a string of fascinating physiological changes occur in the elite endurance athlete.

Ed Coyle
“Sport is a system and there are optimal ways in which the training, recovery and peaking for competition can be combined—that’s the science I study.” —Professor Ed Coyle

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“We were fortunate to begin our studies on Lance when he was a young rising star,” said Coyle, director of the Department of Kinesiology and Health Education’s Human Performance Laboratory, “and follow him for seven years in the lab. To document Lance’s physical performance over the years, we hooked him up to a machine in the Human Performance Laboratory that reported the amount of cycling power he generated when he consumed a given amount of oxygen.

“During this time, his overall cycling power improved by eight percent due to increased muscle efficiency and his cycling power per pound of body weight increased by an amazing 18 percent. Physiological determinants such as muscle efficiency, power and oxygen uptake were improved, while Armstrong also had significant reductions in body fat and weight in the months before the Tour de France.”

Using data he gathered years ago from examination of 30 cyclists’ muscle biopsies, Coyle hypothesizes that Lance’s hard training over time improved efficiency by changing the chemistry of his muscle fibers from fast twitch to slow twitch.

“Given that only a one to three percent difference separates the winner from the middle of the pack in most Olympic finals,” said Coyle, “an eight percent improvement in efficiency is absolutely astounding. Some of Lance’s competitors needed to lose weight but didn’t. He has consistently done what it takes to win, which includes shaving extra weight off as well as not participating in numerous other exhausting bike races in the months before the Tour. Lance was a winner who was hungrier—both literally and figuratively.”

In addition to being valuable because it is a rare longitudinal examination of a hard-training endurance athlete, Coyle’s study is unique because his subject was diagnosed with and treated for cancer during the seven years of research.

In one hour of bike riding, Armstrong can cover 32 miles as opposed to the 21 miles a top runner could cover on a bike and the 16 miles an average cyclist could cover.“The fact that Lance was diagnosed with testicular cancer and received chemotherapy and surgery when he was 25 years old did not seem to hamper his long-term progress,” said Coyle. “He lost a little bit of training time, but the physical effect on his cardiovascular conditioning was negligible. When tested in our laboratory eight months after cessation of chemotherapy, Lance’s results were right in line with measurements expected from highly trained athletes during brief lapses in training.”

As Coyle points out, the best way to absorb the magnitude of Armstrong’s physical power and endurance is to compare him to others. In one hour of bike riding, Armstrong can cover 32 miles as opposed to the 21 miles a top runner could cover on a bike and the 16 miles an average cyclist could cover.

Armstrong possesses a large, strong heart that can beat more than 200 times a minute operating at maximum capacity and pump an exceptionally large volume of blood and oxygen to his legs—only around 100 other men on earth, who have been tested, have comparable abilities and only two other competitive cyclists whom Coyle has tested in the past 20 years have even come close to Armstrong’s 200 heartbeats per minute.

If a normal male college student were to train at a grueling pace for two or more years, the student’s maximum oxygen uptake would not increase above 60 ml/kg/min—Coyle estimates that even if Armstrong became a couch potato, his would not dip below 60 ml/kg/min.

“Endurance cycling requires that a number of body parts be exceptional,” said Coyle. “We’re talking about the size of the heart and its pumping ability, the number of blood vessels that deliver oxygen to leg muscles and the biochemical proteins in muscle that generate power and resist fatigue, or that ‘burn’ you feel, for example.

“Lance does have all of these things, but, equally important, he’s nurtured his ‘natural’ talent with a tough-minded, scientific approach to training, mental fortitude and that indefinable something we call ‘competitive drive.’”

Lance Armstrong
Coyle found that seven-time Tour de France winner Armstrong had a genetic headstart as a powerful endurance athlete, along with uncommon drive and discipline.

Although Armstrong’s probably the most famous subject Coyle has examined in depth, he’s by no means the only.  Ever since Coyle was an undergraduate and a research subject in an exercise physiology experiment, he has loved looking at the science behind physical performance.

“I was a runner in high school and college and loved athletics,” said Coyle, “but it was  participation in that exercise physiology experiment that showed me the science side of exercise would be fun to study, and I realized that I could make a career out of doing what I enjoyed. For decades I’ve been curious about how a healthy body functions when working or exercising, and with studying the limits to human physical performance.”

In the past 30 years, Coyle has published more than 100 scientific studies on athletes, and in June the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) honored him with one of their annual Citation Awards, recognizing Coyle as the foremost investigator in the field of exercise physiology that relates to athletic performance. 

The ACSM cited Coyle’s seminal research contributions in the areas of endurance performance; the roles of dehydration and hyperthermia in the development of exhaustion; the effects of carbohydrate supplementation on performance of athletes during prolonged, strenuous exercises; the need for dietary fat to restore intramuscular triglyceride stores following prolonged endurance events; the effects of exercise and training on the regulation of fat and carbohydrate metabolism during exercise; and  cardiovascular drift during prolonged exercise. Coyle has been invited to present around 170 lectures internationally and 15 of his publications have attained “citation classic” status, meaning that each has been cited more than 100 times.

Outside the lab, Coyle serves as adviser and consultant to sports teams such as the San Antonio Spurs and The University of Texas at Austin’s athletics program. He has participated in Discovery Channel, CNN and MSNBC productions and offered expert opinion on physical performance to journalists around the world.

Lance is a rarity, no doubt about it, but you do see other athletes who have that exciting combination of superior physical make-up as well as training ethic and endurance. Professor Ed Coyle“When you study the outer edge of human performance, you learn extremely valuable lessons that can be applied to everyone,” said Coyle. “Even with Lance’s strength and his genetic head-start, he had a weak link, which was muscle efficiency. With systematic progress over years, most anyone can raise their weakest link.”

Coyle’s internationally acclaimed research on each body system and the limits to which it can be forced before it fatigues has applications to soldiers in the military as well as to the weekend warrior who wants to squeeze every ounce of good from each workout. With the data that have been collected on each body system over the past 100 years and advances in technology, scientists like Coyle get better and better at predicting what tasks and environments can cause the cardiac, skeletal muscle and neurological systems to break down and a human “machine” to fail.

So, in all of this activity in his Human Performance Laboratory, has Coyle discovered the next big thing, the next superman?

“Lance is a rarity, no doubt about it,” said Coyle, “but you do see other athletes who have that exciting combination of superior physical make-up as well as training ethic and endurance. Last summer, for example, I did some testing on a very, very talented UT student athlete named Leo Manzano. He’s one of the best ‘milers’ in the U.S. and was a top performer in the NCAA finals.

“When we took images—an echocardiogram—of his heart, we saw that it was much bigger than average. Although he’s only 5’5”, he has the heart of someone who’s around 6’4”. We’re hoping to do more testing on him, and, like we did with Lance, decipher how his body keeps adapting. When someone that young is as talented as he is at running, you know he’s likely to keep training and racing for years. Who knows how far he’ll go?”

BY Kay Randall

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  Updated 13 March 2008
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